Al-Azhar torn between secularists and Islamists

Noha El Hennawy, Almasy Alyoum, Cairo.

Despite ongoing feuds over the identity of the state in post-Mubarak Egypt, both secularists and Islamists have recently agreed on one issue: the necessity of liberating Al-Azhar from government control. Yet, each camp has its own motives for supporting an autonomous clergy.

Islamists view an autonomous Al-Azhar as key to achieving an Islamic renaissance in Egypt. But for non-Islamists, if the religious establishment – long known for its moderate understanding of Islam – is freed, it can regain credibility among the masses and stem the influence of radical groups.

For secularists, the need to contain the growth of radical Islam has become dire in recent months with the resurgence of Salafi groups in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. At least three Salafi parties have launched since the revolution began on 25 January. Last month, tens of thousands Salafis alarmed secular activists when they flooded Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution, in a rally that called for implementation of Sharia, Islamic law.

“When intransigent voices dominate, the moderate outlook, for which Al-Azhar has been famous, becomes needed,” Ibrahim al-Essawi, a co-founder of the left-wing Popular Socialist Alliance Party, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Essawi’s party is one of several non-Islamist groups that threw their full backing behind Al-Azhar’s independence by signing statements and raising the issue in the media. Even secular presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, who met with Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb recently, has supported calls for independence.

“If Al-Azhar retrieves its independence, all the people will rally around it,” the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency told reporters after the meeting. “The different interpretations of Islam that we see today, and those divisions based on religion, should not exist. Al-Azhar should retrieve its role as the beacon of enlightened Islam, not only in Egypt but in the whole Arab world.”

A few days earlier, ElBaradei’s contender Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, paid a visit to Tayeb and made similar comments.

“Al-Azhar should retrieve its role in achieving the renaissance and the advancement of the nation,” reads the platform of the Salafi Nour Party posted on the group’s official Facebook page. “Regardless of the ruling regime type, Al-Azhar should be independent and act as the conscience of the nation.”

In the same document, the Alexandria-based party has endorsed the demands echoed by thousands of Al-Azhar preachers to reverse all policies inherited from Nasser’s times.

For Mohamed Yosry, Nour Party spokesperson, secularists who back the independence of Al-Azhar hoping to defeat Salafis are contradicting themselves.

“By requiring Al-Azhar to play a particular role or to adopt a particular school of thought, you will be threatening the very independence of Al-Azhar,” said Yosry. “The role of Al-Azhar is not to stand by the side of one political trend against another.”

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Categories: Africa, Egypt

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